Page forty-seven.

At the end of he semester, the library at school had a book sale. I waited until everything was free, then I took five or six old books and hymnals. Lately, I’ve been using one of the books as a sort of puzzle – you know how you’ve seen those altered book pages, where people black out most of the words on a page and leave the rest as a sort of poem? Well, it is actually a very useful thing to do, especially when you’re muddling through writer’s block but still really want to create something. In a lot of ways, I also think the exercise strengthens me as a writer, forcing me to think hard about what I’m forming with words already written. It helps me become more comfortable revising, switching around what I leave and what I black out. It helps me pay attention to the purposefulness of words, the fact that the original author wrote these ones for a reason, and how beautiful it is that I can use the exact same words and form them into a completely new idea. And it’s cool, because I know what the original page was about, and in some ways, my poem will still be connected to it, but you, my reader, get a completely different experience.

I love that dynamic: the fluidity of meaning.

Anyway, I’ve made quite a few of these little poems, and I’m going to post them over the next few days. Hopefully I can also figure out how to upload scans of the original pages as well, since part of the uniqueness of this type of writing is what it looks like on an old yellowed book page.

For now, here is Page Forty-Seven.

__________________________________________

he recounted the left behind,
weathered from the broken stone.
we are
history.
an answer to prayers.
we have heard the people
far off.
history is always like that.
pulling at the Valley of shadows,
the great fierce prayer made
Hearts lighter,
because they expected nightfall
all day.

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But Then on Monday.

This week, my dorm did this thing called Confidence Week.  The premise of the week was that we were supposed to forgo putting on makeup, wear plain clothes, cover all the mirrors, not spend time on our hair, and so forth.  When my RA first told us about it a couple weeks ago, I thought it was completely ridiculous.  You see, I am like a machine set to automatically reject anything that sounds cliche or remotely contrived.  I’m like a child, spitting up the mashed apricots or peas the moment it touches her lips, without ever even tasting it.  I don’t like anything that might possibly sound like A Lesson.

And Confidence Week sounded like the biggest cliched lesson around.  We reject cultural norms of beauty so that we can truly see that God created us all beautiful no matter what?  Yeah… haven’t heard that one before.  The depth – or, in my eyes, lack thereof – was almost insulting.

As you can see, I can be far, far too cynical for my own good.

But I did think a lot about it, and I did stick it in my prayers, mostly as an afterthought.  The more I thought about it and talked to people about it, the more I saw the value in it.  Personally, I don’t put a huge amount of stock in makeup or clothes.  My makeup regimen takes about five minutes (powder, eyeliner, mascara, done), and I generally cycle through outfits on a two-week rotating schedule.  I love clothes, and I love looking nice, but I don’t put my worth in it.  I like makeup, mostly because it helps me not look like a 14-year-old, but summers at camp have taught me not to worry too much when I’m not wearing any.  I rarely do anything more than blow-dry my hair, occasionally putting a clip in it, so that wasn’t a big deal either.  But I knew that I did put a certain amount of confidence in these things, and many of my sisters in Christ really did struggle in this area.  My cynicism wasn’t helping anything.

So this Monday, I didn’t put makeup on.  I wore a plain blue sweater, and I barely glimpsed myself in the mirror as I left my still-dark room.  No one really noticed the change, or at least they didn’t say anything if they did.  My day was normal.  I didn’t feel any different.

At least until four o’clock.  Monday afternoon, I was performing in a scene for my friend’s Directing II class.  The students in the class basically conduct rehearsals and prepare a scene with some volunteer actors for a couple weeks, then the scenes are performed in class and  the directors get graded on their choices or their staging or their rehearsal process – something like that.  I had performed in a few scenes last semester for a Directing I class, so the whole process was pretty familiar to me.  I benefited from it – I got experience with different types of plays, I got to refine my own technique, and I got to work with some other really talented student actors and directors.  And as a communications major, I do have a significant amount of time on my hands for this type of thing.  This time, we were performing a scene from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  We were setting it in a contemporary garden, so a little before four, I put on some makeup, a flowy mint green dress, and pearls, and headed to the auditorium.

I was so nervous.  I didn’t know why – we knew our scene, we knew our lines, everything was going to go smoothly.  I wasn’t afraid to mess up.  I wasn’t afraid of people watching – I thrive on people watching me perform.  I love performing.  I couldn’t figure it out – the killer butterflies who live inside me were gnawing away at my stomach, and I had no idea why.

The scene, just under ten minutes long, flew by.  The aforementioned killer butterflies dispersed the moment my director said “Action,” and the scene went wonderfully.  I was so proud of my fellow actors and of my director.  We watched the other scene, which was also stunning, and class was over.

Then something wild happened.  And I can’t really explain it in neat words, so I’ll just say it like it felt: it was like taking a drink of what you thought was water and getting lemonade.  It was like walking from a dark room into the sunlight, and staggering back a few paces.  It was like collapsing into bed after a long day at the amusement part, but not falling asleep.  I felt – aimless.  Confused.  Empty.

Do you know what the postpartum blues are?  It’s like a less-severe form of postpartum depression.  You spend nine months with this baby in you and then there is a baby outside of you and everything is weird.  At least (having never had a baby myself, obviously), that’s how I understand it.  I could be totally wrong.  But the illustration is what I want you to get: spending a certain amount of time and energy on life, looking forward to this great amazing thing, then turning around and finding the great amazing thing has happened, and now life has to return to normal.

Being an artist is like having perpetually-recurring bouts of postpartum blues, minus the Having An Infant thing.  For me, at least.  (But I have this sneaky feeling I’m not the only one.)  You see, I will spend hours and hours formulating a poem in my heart and my head, and then it will all come flowing out of me.  When I see it there on paper, it’s like an illusion.  How could all my thoughts, all my emotions be summed up in three pages?  How is it possible for those words to be adequate for what I was imagining?  I know I’ve created something, but I don’t understand what I’ve created.  The same goes for stories, but those rarely make it to the page.  I’ll write bits and pieces of hidden novels, and sometimes it is beautiful but sometimes it seems meaningless.  When I paint, no matter how much I like what I produce, I’m never fully satisfied.  And when I act – when I act, it is the worst.  I’ll put weeks into rehearsal, whether for a full production or for shorter scenes.  I will throw my heart into it: it’s like the character lives in my pocket, pointing out other people who look like her, or whispering her past in my ear, or pushing me to memorize her words.  No matter how inconsequential the final performance might be – whether it’s for a class or on a stage – I fall in love with it.  I develop big ideas for it.  I come to believe I can live up to it.  But as I get closer to performance, the more I start to doubt myself.  The more I notice the talent of others.  The more I believe I’ve made up any talent I thought I had.  When the performance is over, my head knows I did fine, but some beastly voice inside me tells me it wasn’t enough.  And I am empty.

When it happens, it never lasts long.  I call it an artistic funk.  I don’t say much about it, and it goes away within a day.  But Monday night was a particularly strong artistic funk.  And I did not like it.  All of a sudden, I felt like I was not the person I thought I was.  In high school, I did everything.  And everyone always noticed.  In college, I had to start over, which I was okay with, as a freshman.  But now I’m almost finished with my sophomore year, and I feel terrifyingly ordinary.  I had never felt ordinary – it wasn’t like an arrogant thing, just simply that I recognized that I was good at stuff, I liked stuff, people liked me and the stuff I created, and I found validation in all of it.

On Monday night, I felt no validation.  I felt grossly untalented.  I saw the gifts of others and then I looked at myself and it was like I had done nothing.  And who was I if I hadn’t done anything?

You could call it a miniature identity crisis.  I would label it as such.  I was questioning my future goals based on a momentary feeling.  In a word, it was irrational.  In two words, it was ridiculously irrational.  But on Monday night, I felt like someone had taken the batteries out of the well-oiled, intricately tuned instrument that was my life.

I wrote a poem in my attempt to deal with the onslaught of inadequate feelings (because that is what I do).  I had two amazing conversations with friends who, to my surprise, knew very much what I was feeling, even though I couldn’t have explained it all too well.  The following day, a pastor spoke on God’s calling for our lives, saying that we weren’t meant to bumble through life looking for a place to fit in our gifts – God had created our gifts for an unimaginably specific reason.

God was trying to talk to me.  And for once in my ridiculous life, I chose to listen.

“Courtney, don’t you see that you are not the sum of your talent?  Don’t you understand that I molded you as an artist for a reason?  Don’t you get that you’re doing exactly what I want you to be doing?  My will is not something for which you have to grope in the dark.”

And in the light of His majesty, my inadequacies began to fade into shadow.  I made myself pay attention to the talents of others not as something to compare myself to, but as something to cherish and praise God for.  I made myself accept my poem and my scene and my aspirations as valid, worthwhile blessings.  Because that is what they are.

I didn’t think Confidence Week was going to mean much to me.  Turns out, I needed it more than ever.  It’s true, I really don’t find worth in the things I wear or the makeup I put on my face.  I am empowered by those things, yes.  But I am not discouraged without them.  As I sat with my unit-mates, reflecting midway through Confidence Week, I realized – so much of my confidence dwells in my gifts.  I base a huge amount of my worth on my ability to write, my ability to create, my ability to act, to learn, to play music and to find meaning and to conceptualize a vision.  But instead of becoming arrogant, I’ve become flippantly self-deprecating (which is really just another form or arrogance, isn’t it?).  Over the years, I have come to put so much stock in the idea of being an artist that I doubt I can actually be one.  My heart sees me from within so it knows my passion, but my eyes are blind to the value of what I produce.  I let something that is not of God trick me into thinking that I am not good enough.  Then I feel empty.  Because I start to question the satisfaction that can come from the blessings of the Lord.

What made me believe that I was not good enough?  But more than that, why do I let myself think that God’s call is not good enough?

It would be easy to summarize my tumultuous week by saying that I can now find confidence in my gifts because God gave them to me and I am not as boring as I thought I was and cue the Veggie Tales theme music and voila.  But, of course, that would completely miss the point of Confidence Week.  Because really, I couldn’t be the person I am without Yahweh.  Without His grace, I wouldn’t be a writer.  I wouldn’t be creative, because He was the first Great Creator.  For His glory I have chosen to pursue mastery of my gifts – I can never forget that.  The moment I forget the One who bestows is the moment everything I do becomes obsolete.  My confidence can’t be in the things I do, even if I recognize God’s hand in those things.

My confidence has got to be in the only One who can make me feel full.